Muslim rage and the West: The expression of regret for the protected speech of others

“Muslim Rage”, Riots, and Criminal Attacks in Response to the Film Entitled “The Innocence of Muslims”

The publication on the Internet of a  “trailer” for a film entitled “The Innocence of Muslims” has given rise to demonstrations in a number of Muslim countries, including Egypt where the government did not prevent demonstrators from scaling the walls of the U.S. embassy and entering the courtyard on the first day, September 11, and Libya where a murderous assault was mounted later that evening by organized paramilitary forces against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, resulting in the deaths of four Americans including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

The hesitation of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in ordering additional police and in condemning the assault on the the U.S. Embassy on the first day of the protests, before President Barack Obama telephoned him, was particularly chilling and raised questions about future U.S. collaboration with the government of the Muslim Brotherhood led by Morsi.

What we are witnessing is a kind of cultural battle in which the main protagonists are the forces of Modernity, represented by the West in the popular imagination of the Arab Street, but also and importantly by broad sectors of the populations in Islamic countries which are educated and want to join the modern world, on the one hand, and extremist Muslim groups which oppose Modernity and the West, and seek to return 21st century societies to the conditions presumed to have existed in a distant imagined past, including a theocratic form of government in which a harsh form of Shari’a or Muslim religious law and social codes from that era are imposed on the population as God’s law and God’s social order.

Advocates and defenders of Modernity, including those in the West, are operating on an uneven playing field in a cultural conflict between these two approaches to government and society.  In the West, the tolerance and democratic values of Modernity protect the views of Islamic extremists who reject those very values, while in practice in Muslim countries the reverse is often not the case.

Historical Perspective

The West has benefited from centuries of developments that have led to the existence of the modern, tolerant democratic state.

In England, limitations on the powers of the King vis-à-vis the aristocracy were established in the Magna Carta of 1215.  Religious independence from Rome was achieved in the 16th century.  Further restrictions on government resulted from the English Revolution of 1688 and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.

On the Continent of Europe, religious pluralism was achieved as the result of a long struggle, including the Protestant Reformation beginning in 1517 with Martin Luther and, in the 17th century, the 30 Years’ War (1618-1648) culminating in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, establishing the right of rulers to choose the religion of their followers.

In the 18th century, the Enlightenment charted the philosophical basis for a firm separation between Church and State, which was achieved in the American and the French Revolutions.  Both revolutions also gave rise to declarations of rights of citizens as against their governments, limiting the authority of the latter in important realms such as freedom from arbitrary arrest, trial by due process of law, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press.  In France, during the French Revolution and afterwards, ridicule of and attacks upon the Catholic Church were merciless. For example, at a time when it was forbidden for Catholics to eat meat on Friday, the Freemasons, to make their point, held luncheons at which they feasted to excess on pork, beef and every other kind of meat.

In the Islamic world, while there have been periods of remarkable tolerance, in the end these approaches have not yet prevailed in many countries of  the Middle East and South Asia, and as a result the culture and political realities of many of these countries have been characterized by a pattern of not infrequently settling differences of opinion, particularly as to religious matters, either through repression by the state or by assassination of those who disagree with religious extremists who are willing and able to kill them.

As a result, many advocates of Modernity within many Islamic societies are cowed by fear, the very real fear that Muslim extremists will kill them for expressing views which the assassins consider to be blasphemous or heretical.

To be sure, the West has passed through historical stages such as the Inquisition in which heresy from Rome was punished by execution, and societies were ruled by terror, often under religious pretexts.

What is different is that in the West the Reformation did occur, successfully, and the diversity of religions in Europe was established as a result of the Reformation, the 30 Years’ War (1618-1648), and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.  In the 18th century, the Enlightenment did take place in France and America, and elsewhere, and political liberties including the right to individual religious freedom were established in the constitutions of France and America, and beyond.  Through Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, the principles of the French constitution were enacted throughout Europe, and later Latin America.

Eventually, the ideas enshrined in the the American and French declarations of rights and constitutions of 1787, 1789 and 1791, and even earlier, triumphed not only on paper but also in reality, even if in Europe it took a war against Germany and the Axis Powers including Italy and Japan to consolidate that result through the victory of the Allied Powers in 1945.  The exceptions, of course, were the Soviet Union  and the societies subjugated by the Red Army during and after World War II.

Following the defeat of Japan in 1945, and under the American occupation that followed, these ideas also took root in Japan, and spread to other countries in the region.  When the Berlin wall came down in 1989, the military grip of the Soviet Union over the countries of Eastern Europe was broken, and these societies too joined the community of democratic states in Europe and North America, and in Asia and Latin America, where democracies had also taken hold.

Importantly, at the international level the ideas of the American and French Revolutions, and the earlier English Revolution of 1688, also triumphed.  These ideas were enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 with the affirmative and overwhelming vote of almost all countries.

Significantly, however, Saudi Arabia did not vote for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and religious opposition to the ideas expressed in the Declaration, and subsequently codified in the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966, in force since 1976), did not disappear in the Islamic countries of the Middle East and South Asia.

The core of the cultural battle we now see being played out in “Muslim outrage” over depictions of Muslims or even Mohamed published in the West, the seat of Modernity, under the protection of the right of free speech, epitomizes the fundamental incompatibility of the bedrock values of individual liberties, freedom of religion, and the separation of Church and State which have triumphed in the West, and now much of the world, and the values of fundamentalist and extreme religious groups in Muslim societies today which are in essence opposed to the Enlightenment, the separation of religion and the state, and the protection of fundamental human rights including the equality of women, freedom of religion, and the right to free speech and freedom of the press.

On religious issues, not only fundamentalist and extreme religious groups but also broader portions of Islamic populations oppose freedom of expression, and are susceptible to being persuaded that critics are guilty of blasphemy.

What is different between the West and the societies still struggling in the battle between Modernity and Islamic fundamentalism, is that the West in accordance with its values of tolerance and protection of citizens in the exercise of their fundamental rights grants a zone of freedom to Muslims, including those with extremist views, which Muslims do not always grant to advocates of Modernity–even fellow Muslims–within the borders of Islamic states.

While freedom of expression may be guaranteed in Islamic countries under their constitutions and laws (often modeled in the Middle East, ironically, on those of France), such freedom does not extend to questioning Islam or the Prophet Mohamed, or even to engaging in historical studies of the origins of the religion as is common practice in the West regarding Christianity or Judaism or any other religion.  Even where freedom exists on paper, governments and individual leaders are often cowed by the threat of assassination that always lurks in the shadows when it comes to defending the right of critics of Islam, or even within Islam, to express their views.

That is one reason why even advocates of Modernity within Islamic societies are reluctant to take strong positions against the extremist views of those who, if not placated, may be willing to kill them. We see, for example, that even as Muslim voices are raised in outrage over an amateurish and polemical film made in the West, a “foundation” in Iran has raised the bounty on the head of Salmon Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses (published in England in 1988), with little or no outcry from within the Muslim world.

How can this cultural battle be engaged in a constructive manner?

Framing a Respectful Dialogue

How can these strong cultural and religious differences in values be framed and transformed into a respectful dialogue between two great civilizations?

For those in the West, the most important point is that it is essential that they see and understand clearly that this unlevel playing field exists.

Instead of simply apologizing to Muslim extremists for offending their sensibilities, those in the West should insist on such extremists respecting their sensibilities and activities, and ceasing their insults and crimes against advocates and defenders of Modernity, whether these be from the West or from within their own countries.

An apology may be offered and do relatively little harm within the ambit of the tolerant societies of the West.  But it is often taken as a sign of weakness by extremists who are fundamentally at war with the values of the West and Modernity and, instead of having a calming effect, may in fact goad them on to further hostile actions and attacks.

Moreover, government officials in the West need to think carefully before they “apologize” for the protected speech of others which may be offensive to Muslims, or to other religious groups.  They must be very careful indeed not to give the impression that they are apologizing for the “weakness” of their constitutional guarantees of free speech, for such apologies undermine those guarantees in their own societies and may unintentionally weaken the position of advocates of Modernity within the very societies to which their “apologies” are addressed.

The option of simply not responding should always be considered, as there is no requirement that the governmnet respond to those who are upset by the exercise of free speech within its jurisdiction. Nonetheless, on occasion it may be appropriate for government officials to express “regret” that constitutionally protected free speech has given offense to the followers of this or that religion, and particularly Islam, but even this is a slippery slope and extreme care should be exercised.

How might an “expression of regret” be properly framed by a government official when the exercise of protected free speech by others gives offense to some, or many, Muslims?

In every case where Muslim extremist groups express outrage at an insensitive or deliberately insulting cultural expression disparaging Islam and Muslims, advocates of Modernity should frame the discourse by pointing out similar acts of insensitivity committed by Muslims against Christians and Jews and others, and the lack of public criticisms in Muslim societies of the authors of such actions, even when violent crimes are involved or encouraged.

At the same time, if crimes are being threatened by offended Muslims, advocates of Modernity should forcefully and unequivocally demand that public order be maintained and that all diplomats and foreigners and their property be fully protected by the governments of the countries in which such crimes are threatened or appear likely–or even possible. Only then should an explanation be offered that the offensive acts do not represent the policy of the government or in the official’s opinion the views of the people of his or her country, but that such activity is firmly protected by that country’s constitution and in the constitutions of other countries that embrace the values of the West and Modernity.  Within this framework of explanation, an expression of sincere regret that the sensibilities of Muslims have been offended may be quite appropriate.

An “apology” from the state for the protected speech of others, on the other hand, is not appropriate, because the state is not the author of the action deemed by Muslims to be offensive, and because the state should never apologize for its constitutional protection of free speech and freedom of expression.

To show weakness, to apologize for the protected speech of others without at the same time reaffirming the fundamental liberties which permitted such expression to take place, only plays to the advantage of the extremist groups.  Rather, the moment should be seized not only to express regret over some action deemed “offensive” to Muslims and exploited by extremists in their own war against Modernity and the West, but also to simultaneously assert and defend the fundamental values of the civilization of Modernity and the West which protect expressions which may be offensive to Muslims, or to Christians, or to Jews, or to any other religious sect or group.

Such principled responses will help place the “offense” within the proper context in the struggle over values between Islamic extremists and advocates of Modernity, and ultimately help to reinforce the positions of advocates and defenders of Modernity, both within and outside of Islamic countries.

Whether offensive speech should be treated as consitutionally-protected free speech, or blaphemy, is a question which sums up the essential clash of values.  The societies of the West underwent tremendous upheavals, including the 30 Years’ War and the French Revolution, in sorting out where they stood on these issues.  Where the debates within Islamic societies will come out is uncertain, but the trend has been an evolution toward outcomes similar to those in countries in the rest of the world that have accepted Modernity and embraced the international law of human rights.

In the meantime, when speech or actions offensive to Muslim religious sensibilities lead to unrest and demonstrations, journalists should avoid fanning the flames of controversy by predicting massive reactions, and should in all cases make every effort to accurately report what is happening within the context that gives it meaning. If a thousand people in a Muslim country demonstrate against some speech or act in a country that protects free speech, they should not miss the story that the other 89,999,000 people in the country did not demonstrate.

Tolerance and pluralism are the crowning values of the civilization of Modernity and the West.  Large sectors of the populations in many Muslim countries appreciate these values and are striving to implement them within their own societies.  In responding to the “Muslim outrage” of sincere Muslims who are offended by a particular action (and of extremist groups which whip up such sentiments for their own purposes), or the outrage of any religious or other group, the reaffirmation of these values should hold center place.

The Trenchant Observer

Further reading

Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (Oxford University Press, 1993)

Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon & Schuster, 1996)

Giles Kepel, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West (Harvard University Press, 2004)

Khaled Abou el Fadl, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (Harper Collins, 2005)